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Don’t fear failure; it’s not a testament to who you are

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Lwando Xaso is an attorney and a writer exploring the interaction between race, gender, history and popular culture. She is the author of the book, ‘Made in South Africa, A Black Woman’s Stories of Rage, Resistance and Progress’.

One of the enduring memories that most of us have of matric is the fear throughout that final year of high school before we are catapulted into the real world. We are made to believe that our performance will earn us the right to have a place in the world.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

The final exams are not just academic; they are an imprimatur of our value. 

The anxiety of searching a newspaper for our names and the fear of the public shame and embarrassment that would ensue if it was missing drove us to work hard to avoid that fate. 

Although I was a generally confident student, a part of me believed the lie that my worth was bound up in my performance. I partly bought into the lie that my future would be upended if this one year of my life did not go according to plan. 

Well, I did find my name in the newspaper and proceeded to navigate the broader world. The new anxiety was not failing out of university. Since before I was a teenager, I was hyperaware of my community’s nervousness for girls like me not to fall pregnant and fail out of school. Failure would confirm what the world already thought of us and justify our exclusion. 

However, as much as I tried, I could not avoid failure forever. It finally pinned me down in my second year of university. I failed Roman-Dutch law. I was in disbelief. 

I was ashamed. Who would want a lawyer who failed a course at university? It felt as if my future hung in the balance. I initially disputed the result, unable to accept it. When it became clear that there was no way out of this other than repeating the course, I surrendered to what was. I did not die, and I went on to secure articles at a top law firm. 

On the other side of failure I found something far richer than the distinction I eventually received for the course. 

I learnt that failure was not a testament to who I was as a person. Also, I started to reframe failure as not something to be feared but accepted and surrendered to as a necessary part of growth. If you are not failing, you are not growing. I also understood that our toxic relationship with failure results from a capitalist society that thrives on our self-doubt, which pushes us to produce at inhumane levels. We fear that if we do not, then we are responsible for our exclusion and dismissal. 

My most recent brush with failure happened just this past month when my laptop crashed and had to be taken in for an assessment and repairs. I loaned an old laptop that had its issues, which meant that I was riddled with technical difficulties all month long. The quality of the presentations and speeches that I delivered virtually were compromised. Some clients were patient with my technical issues, others were not. 

It was one glitch after the other. At some point I was again tempted to think of myself as a failure, especially in the face of a harsh response I experienced from one particular client. 

But then I remembered we are still in a global pandemic. Covid-19 has broken down the fourth wall between the perfection we want to project to the outside world and the chaos behind the scenes of our real lives. This has allowed us to be more patient and compassionate with each other. 

I had to give myself that same compassion. The kindness of clients, collaborators and supporters of my work saw me through a very challenging month. 

I learnt that when some projects failed, it was not a testament to my value and what I was capable of. Instead of confirming who the world predetermined me to be, failure has instead revealed to me who I am: a multifaceted human being who has value beyond performance. It has shown me new depths, ingenuity, smarts and resourcefulness that I did not know I had. It has also helped me define the values that underpin who I am and the work I want to do. 

Trust is one such value. To trust myself despite my failings and to work with people who have trust in me. 

I also realise that failure is a luxury that the generations before me did not have. An indication of our progress is our ability to fail and make mistakes and not have those failures or mistakes have the final say on who we are. Today I am privileged that I get to write myself out of the world’s perception of my failings. 

To the matric pupils about to take on their final exams amid an ongoing pandemic, remember you have infinite value beyond your matric results. Be kind to yourselves. 

Do not be driven by a fear of failure. Failure is valuable information. Instead, be driven by the inspiration of what you have to offer the world. And remember you are alchemists, you can spin magic out of what the world perceives as failure. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.

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